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Backpacking around Scotland without a car - A firsthand experience

HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
edited March 14 in Touring and Road Trips
I want to share my story of how going on an epic road trip does not require you to drive a car. Most of my 400+ comments refer to my own experiences of seeing the country by public transport. Creating this thread to talk about my single longest solo trip's motivations, the execution, highlights, and lowlights. You can find detailed reports of the trip broken down by day on my travel blog Beyond Our Horizons.

The motivation

I planned to take a sabbatical from work around 5 years into my career when I realized how woefully short on practical skills I am. I grew up in India and never learned how to camp or drive with most of my time spent in academics till the age of 24 followed by a tech job. So I threw myself into the deep end and camped for an entire month as my first camping trip. The other main motivation was to reach parts of Scotland that I normally couldn't on my typical week-long trips which I took once a year.

The execution

  • The only planning I had done before the trip is making a list of the places that I deemed as a must-see through the month. This list included areas like Orkney, Torridon, Isle of Harris, Isle of Skye and Islay. 
  • The other key piece of research I did pre-trip was confirming that one can usually get a pitch in any managed campsite as long as they had a small tent and no car (including on the Isle of Skye, which actually is quite full during the summer, pictured). This is the key reason I decided to keep camping and using public transport as the two core elements of my trip. 
  • As the Scottish weather is unpredictable, I spent the entire trip chasing good weather as long as it led me to check off one of the areas off my list. As an example, I had planned to kick off my trip at the Glentrool campsite in Dumfries and Galloway but saw on the train up to Glasgow that the region was being battered by a storm. So I looked up the Scottish weather forecast for the next 2 days and switched up my destination to the Spey Bridge campsite near Newtonmore in the Cairngorms National Park to spend two sunny days in the area.
  • The predictable consequence of chasing the weather is that I had to cross most of the country 3 distinct times to get to a location on my list with good weather. The longest one of these Scotland crossings involved me getting to Stromness from Stornoway. On the plus side, this crossing helped me see my first Highland games at Inverness. 
  • My campsite checkout process was boiled down to a science. I'd start 2 hours before the scheduled transport departure from the nearest stop, take 30 minutes to an hour to pack my backpack and start walking to the bus stop/train station. I needed to walk half a mile on average and it takes more time than usual while carrying a 12 kg backpack. I recommend buying all tickets on the bus or on the train (unless the ticket office is open).

Trip highlights and lowlights

+ I was able to visit many of my favourite distilleries (mostly on Islay) for the first time. Using public transport really helps in visiting distilleries on back-to-back days as the responsibility of driving is in the hands of the bus driver.

+ I got to see the beauty of Scotland in all its glory - the rugged landscapes of Torridon, the stone age artifacts on Orkney, the sandy beaches on the Road to the Isles and so much more while learning a new life skill. I even got to visit the Ring of Brodgar in 26C temperatures. 
                             

- Some connections are terribly inefficient as the timetables of the different modes of transport are not guaranteed to be integrated. I found myself sitting around needlessly at a bus stop or a ferry terminal for more than an hour a few times on this trip. Similarly, I have had train/bus cancellations which really snowball into big delays as there are so few journeys a day in the remote parts of Scotland.

- I learned to steer clear of destinations that are request stops on a bus route. I was left stranded at a request stop at one location. In another instance, I could make a request stop to get to a certain village but was expected to walk 8 km to the official start of the bus route. Thankfully, was given a lift after walking 4 km by a very kind family with 2 dogs.

 - After one point in time, solo travel became unbearably lonely. This did make meeting up with my lovely partner an absolute joy at the end of the trip. The views are only the most beautiful if shared with someone you love. I felt this the most standing at this spot near Torridon.

Did you find the content useful? Then head on over to the Beyond Our Horizons blog to read up on my travel descriptions for the other 15 countries I have visited or follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We are looking forward to visiting the Outer Hebrides next month!
I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

Comments

  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    edited March 14

    My final trip map


    Resources I have written up

    I broke the word limit to create the post above so continuing here. I have used the wealth of Scotland travel experience gained across this 4 week trip and others to create some resources that should help both locals and visitors with a week or two of holidays to see Scotland by public transport.

    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

  • MoFMoF Member ✭✭
    @Horizons That trip map is epic
  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    @MoF thanks, it was indeed. If you read the "crossed the country 3 times", then you'll know why Grantown-on-Spey and Tomintoul in the Cairngorms are not connected. I did a Cairngorms - Loch Lomond - Aberdeenshire - Speyside segment.

    Another fun fact, the bus from Dufftown from Tomintoul runs exactly 2 times in an entire week (it is a shopping bus, my first and only). I was lucky to be visiting on Thursday, one of the two times it runs (I thought Google Maps was broken when it suggested the schedule)
    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

  • AYankInScotlandAYankInScotland Member ✭✭
    Dynamite tour and write-up Horizons - and thanks for sharing that Google map. I'm a cartography freak, and did exactly the same thing before I traveled to Scotland in September of 2016 (I'm coming back in May of this year). Lovely photos too my friend!

    Thanks also for the links in the second post (9 Speciality food items from across Scotland). That was brilliant mate!

    Cheers,

    Christian DeBaun


    World traveler, photographer, and humorist. I wrote an article called “26 Funny Observations about Scotland” in September of 2016, that was widely re-published. You can find it here on the Daily Record. You can also find me on Facebook Instagram

  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    @AYankInScotland Thank you so much for the appreciation Christian! Even though I have never met you, I feel a kinship as I freaking love maps. I pore over Google Maps in my spare time and just think "hmm, an area of natural beauty, I shall go visit". I also once visited a place called Buttermere because I saw it on the map and thought it sounded like Butterbeer (gorgeous place in the Lake District BTW).

    Would you happen to have a blog or photoset from your 2016 trip perchance? I'd love to peruse it. Any exciting plans for your trip in May?
    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

  • AYankInScotlandAYankInScotland Member ✭✭
    Hey Horizons -

    Thanks, and I have attached a PDF of the map I made back in 2016. Hopefully that will work  :)

    Yes, there are quite a few photos, but not here. I did a silly post on a Facebook group called "Scotland From The Roadside" called a "A Yank In Scotland", that went viral. I don't think I'm allowed to post links here yet as a junior member - but if you Google "A Yank In Scotland", you'll find an article that appeared in the dailyrecord(dot)co(dot)uk.

    Still most of my photos are over on the Facebook group: Scotland From The Roadside

    I'm hoping to shoot almost all video on this next trip (challenge myself a bit) and just use a smartphone this time and a small camera.

    By the way, I love your blog!

    Cheers,

    Chris

    World traveler, photographer, and humorist. I wrote an article called “26 Funny Observations about Scotland” in September of 2016, that was widely re-published. You can find it here on the Daily Record. You can also find me on Facebook Instagram

  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    It is all coming back to me, I LOVED that post! (link) And I related to it so much because I too had moved from the US after living there 5 years and had so many similar observations "It's ridiculously windy. Everywhere." (day 1 in Scotland had wind speeds that would be an Amber wind warning in the US) and "I saw exactly 2 police cars in Scotland" (I actually was on the wrong end of this one, 911 took 5 mins to respond to me in Seattle and 999 took more than an hour in Edinburgh wrt officer at the door).

    And yes, Scots are genuinely the most friendly people in the world. By a long distance. I cannot state this enough from personal experience.

    Would love to buy you a pint if you're spending a Tuesday on your May trip in Edinburgh. Drop me a PM through my page's FB page if you're up for a free libation from an adopted Scot :smile:
    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

  • MoFMoF Member ✭✭
    You two are making me want to do a quick and dirty map of my trip, which most definitely was not as epic.

    I might do that on my break.
  • MoFMoF Member ✭✭
    @AYankInScotland I also didn't realize, you were just down the way from me, heck my ISP at home loves to insist its in the Charlottesville area.  I'm all the way up past Front Royal. 

    Trying to find a place out with good single malts in Virginia is a joke due to the ABC laws.  (requires 60% of income from food receipts, to prevent bars), so even the halfway expensive places (as oddly by law they have to not be cheap to even serve mixed drinks) have a few The Macallan's and possibly a Lagavuellin 16 or some sort of Laphroaig.   It would be nice to find a good Whisky bar that doesn't focus on Bourbon.

    So I am gaining quite a collection for drinking at home.


  • AYankInScotlandAYankInScotland Member ✭✭
    Horizons said:

    Would love to buy you a pint if you're spending a Tuesday on your May trip in Edinburgh. Drop me a PM through my page's FB page if you're up for a free libation from an adopted Scot :smile:

    Hey Anirudh/Horizons -

    I'm tentatively slated to Edinburgh May 24 & 25 (Thurs/Fri) and if you are around - YES, lets enjoy a good whisky or a pint together. I'm also meeting with Jason Philip, the son of Bruce Philip - who's dad started the "Scotland From the Roadside" page. Maybe the 3 of of us could meet up.

    I'm helping Jason with some basic advertising  for SFTR (I make my living doing SEO and Social Media for cleints here in the states). I'm simply doing it for free, and to help out - as I owe Scotland many favors now for some of the lovely favors that have been passed along to me.

    I really hope I can meet you, because I've got a lot of questions as to how I can start blogging about Scotland (you are my gold standard).

    Fingers crossed!

    Chris

    World traveler, photographer, and humorist. I wrote an article called “26 Funny Observations about Scotland” in September of 2016, that was widely re-published. You can find it here on the Daily Record. You can also find me on Facebook Instagram

  • AYankInScotlandAYankInScotland Member ✭✭
    MoF said:
    I'm all the way up past Front Royal. 

    It would be nice to find a good Whisky bar that doesn't focus on Bourbon. So I am gaining quite a collection for drinking at home.


    Wow MOF -

    The world is shrinking! You are only about 90 minutes north of me! If you are ever headed to Charlottesville, message me - or ring me at 434.962.0007. Lunch is on me!

    There are no decent whisky bars down here either, because the stock is what ABC can provide, and it's limited. My brother lives in NYC and comes down every so often, so I'll have him "mule" some finer selections down that can't be found here.

    By the way, what's your first name?

    Cheers,

    Chris

    World traveler, photographer, and humorist. I wrote an article called “26 Funny Observations about Scotland” in September of 2016, that was widely re-published. You can find it here on the Daily Record. You can also find me on Facebook Instagram

  • MoFMoF Member ✭✭
    @AYankInScotland ;  I'm Brett BTW, nice to meet ya, We should swap notes.

    For me, for Whisky I go up into Maryland, or into Washington DC since I commute into the metro.    Laphroaig 10 is $36.99 at some shops in the District however still runs me 10-15 dollars to run in and out of the District.  So I do use the ABC, one of the Deluxe stores for some odd reason is selling Edradour 10 for $32.99.   I've made sure I always have a reserve bottle just in case they wise up and realize its wholesale cost.

    One last detail, and I know I'm diverting this topic, but the state store has a new edition of Jura 10 which is sherry finished and lightly peated.  On sale at the state store its delicious as my palate is ruined by Islay Whiskies. It tastes how Highland Park 12 used to taste.  I've already sold two coworkers on a bottle and I'm halfway through mine.   

    I am really looking forward to my Jura daytrip in September now.  To turn this back to the main topic,

    @horizons How is the bus on Jura? I was pondering leaving my car in Port Askaig and taking that up and down the island instead of driving.
  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    I'm tentatively slated to Edinburgh May 24 & 25 (Thurs/Fri) and if you are around - YES, lets enjoy a good whisky or a pint together. 
    I am currently not slated to be in Edinburgh on those days. That said, my travel plans to Edinburgh add up frequently so I'll let you know if I'm in on the 24th (current schedule has me in on the 18th, 22nd and 29th). And "Gold Standard" is far from where I think I am, I am just happy to be here and have people engaging with the content. Happy to talk blog but many of our learnings are their own blogposts actually (search for "lessons learnt" on the blog search).
    @horizons How is the bus on Jura? I was pondering leaving my car in Port Askaig and taking that up and down the island instead of driving.
    The bus on Jura isn't unfortunately good enough for a whisky tasting timetable wise unless it is a school day. That said, the bus driver did know a local taxi driver who was unfortunately busy the day of my visit so I couldn't visit the distillery (which I am ok with as my liver was about to collapse from all the drams I was consuming on Islay). Call the distillery to ask for the driver's number. The bus to Port Askaig is fairly frequent and so is the wee ferry so don't need to drive to Port Askaig either if you are based in somewhere like Bowmore.

    Sidenote: The bus driver is very friendly, dropped me off at the amazing standing stone which is part of the circle featured on the Jura 30 year old bottling and also gave me an out of timetable lift back rather than see me walk. <3 I owe him a very specific food ingredient sadly.


    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    Put the same post up on my blog but with more pictures and my personal top 3 views seen during the trip. Those views have probably been shared by me in other comments but it is so refreshing to see them as a reminder of that month.
    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, Speyside)

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